The Genetic Mutation of the Listeners

When geneticists convey their expertise to the public, they claim to have authoritative knowledge not only about genes but also about their fellow citizens. Almost inevitably, by talking about “genes” in a popularized way, they reframe their listeners and interlocutors (Duden & Samerski, 2007).

The director of the Hanover Institute for Human Genetics has taken it upon himself to draw the public’s attention to distorted notions about genes and to appropriately convey “the role of genes in human life” (p. 172). Right at the beginning of his speech, he points out to his listeners that they are the objects of his expertise: he will be talking about the “human species to which we all belong” (p. 172), he clarifies. Within this species, there are only insignificant genetic differences, he goes on to explain. These sentences set the framework for the seminar. First he appropriates everyone in attendance, whether they like it or not, into an inclusive, global, and inescapable “we all” as the “human species” (p. 173). Then he appoints himself as an expert about this biological “we” by declaring that all people are gene carriers. The geneticist talks to his listeners not as peers but as members of a biological species about which he possesses scientifically validated knowledge. Although the people in the audience are the targets of his explanations, they are also the objects of his specialized knowledge. Objections or protestations of common sense have no place here. As a geneticist, he only knows about gene carriers: in other words, about the people in the audience. A common ground for dialogue therefore does not exist.

As a psychogeneticist, he is searching for “behavior-guiding genes” (p. 173). To this end, he is researching the mating behavior of the female rhesus monkey. Hence he feels empowered to explain the causes of marital infidelity to his listeners—mostly women. As he has already reframed “being human” as belonging to the biological species Homo sapiens, he can now talk about the limbic system, copulating female monkeys, and marital fidelity in a single breath. He knows—only a few genes, after all, separate female monkeys from women—that serotonin levels contribute to the occurrence of extramarital escapades by the female sex. As a champion of genes that do not determine but merely dispose, however, he does not want to simply excuse the unfaithful. “Genes,” he explains, are “cross-linked information carriers” that “sometimes crash” and receive external “commands” (p. 175).Thus human beings are not victims of their genes. They can learn to live with them. The prerequisite for this, however, is counseling by geneticists. Those who do not want their genes to give them the runaround must become aware of and be informed about their genetic inheritance and then actively choose their behavior. Instead of giving in to the infidelity gene, suggests the expert casually, one could eat chocolate instead. Chocolate contains a serotonin precursor.

Human geneticists reframe people into two-legged gene carriers and make it clear to them that they need genetic education. As a bundle of DNA, mutations, and hidden information units, they can no longer know themselves. Those who wish to be “autonomous” must go to a geneticist to find out what their “self” actually is. In the age of genetics, autonomous no longer means being without supervision; rather, it presupposes having been taught about oneself by a genetic expert.

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